Axios news SEO playbook: Speed, authority and brevity
Ryan Kellett, VP of Audience at Axios, shares how SEO helps this news site compete against the world's biggest news publishers.
If you’ve ever read Axios, you’ll remember it. At least that’s what Ryan Kellett, VP of Audience at Axios hopes.
A news article on Axios has a distinctive look. It’s all in the name of Smart Brevity.
Smart Brevity: “Axios gets you smarter, faster on what matters.” That’s their mission. And they have five excellent guiding principles:
- Audience first
- Elegant efficiency
- Smart, always
- No BS for sale
- Excellence, always
What about SEO? Axios had 24.8 million visitors in March, with 16% of traffic coming from organic search, according to Semrush’s Website Traffic Checker. (For comparative purposes, the New York Times is the largest news site, with more than a billion visitors in March – but Axios doesn’t cover nearly as many topics as the Times, CNN or other large news publishers.)
News is incredibly competitive. And Smart Brevity seems to go against what many consider to be SEO best practices. Namely, longer and more is better.
So how does Axios make SEO and Smart Brevity work together?
Go deeper. Here are highlights from my recent Q&A with Kellett. It has been edited for smartness and brevity.
SEO is an entry point. For Axios, it’s audience first, always. Kellett said Axios delivers trustworthy breaking news and insights in the smartest and most efficient way possible. So what role does SEO play at Axios? Here’s what Kellett said:
- “The goal with our SEO discipline is to introduce readers to our fact-based coverage and Smart Brevity in a way that earns their time, attention and trust. You’ll notice Axios is distinctive not just in the quality of what we produce but in the actual look of the written article. Have you seen our bullet points and bold before? It’s memorable.”
- “If we can convince a search reader to identify Smart Brevity wherever they next see Axios (say, in a social feed, Apple News or a forwarded email from a friend), chances are good they will eventually convert to being a subscriber to one of our many amazing newsletters.”
- “Sure, we’d love it if they signed up for a newsletter on the spot after coming over from search, but search mostly is a top-of-funnel entry point for readers who may be coming to us for the first or second time.”
One exception: Axios Pro, which is a specialized news subscription. Pro readers coming from search may be looking for a specific company or individual that Axios is covering, Kellett said.
Smart Brevity is core to Axios. It’s hard to stand out in a crowded news space. Making content longer would go against everything Axios is trying to do. Kellett believes shorter is better. And that most news articles across the web could benefit from being shorter and more readable:
- “Everyone focuses on the brevity part. But it’s brevity in combination with making the reader smarter that drives everything we do.”
- “We most certainly get dinged for this in search rankings, but we have to be comfortable knowing that the reader will appreciate Smart Brevity when they encounter us, recognize it in the wild, and eventually seek it out from us. We obviously can’t abide if our stories don’t index or rank at all, so we look to avoid that. But otherwise, we have broad shoulders and navigate the best we can.”
Why Axioms matter. As Kellett noted, Axios articles have a distinctive look. And this look has a name internally at Axios: axioms. The style can be traced back to Axios co-founder Mike Allen’s flagship newsletter, Axios AM. Kellett said axioms have debatable SEO value – but undeniable value for their audience:
- “How many articles have you read where the most important point and the whole reason you should care is buried in paragraph seven or ten? We use the ‘Why it matters’ axiom so you, the reader, can quickly identify why the story is relevant in the first place.”
- “The SEO part of axioms may be quite subtle. I could make the argument we’re giving a consistent pattern for search engines to identify and parse our content. But I’m unsure how much it practically helps us rank at the moment. If you have creative ideas on how to extend axioms for search, my DMs on Twitter are open until Elon Musk shuts me down.”
“Start from a good place and optimize from there.” Their homegrown CMS defaults help nudge reporters to write good URLs and SEO-friendly headlines. Axios doesn’t have a separate search team outside of its larger audience team, so it relies on its newsdesk, copy editing and audience teams every day, Kellett said.
Headlines are one area Axios regularly tries to improve to enhance performance. Their teams do this manually, by looking at performance and going into the CMS. Axios does not use any kind of automated testing of headlines.
5 Axios SEO best practices
1. SEO education. Kellett said this is ongoing and an important part of keeping up with changes to SEO.
- “I am always on the lookout for myths and bad habits to correct. And Director of Audience Neal Rothschild writes a weekly email (produced using our own Axios HQ software) to the newsroom that reviews examples and changes in best practices, which is incredibly helpful to get the word out internally quickly.”
2. Authority and depth. Axios is not CNN.com. They don’t cover every single topic under the sun. Kellett said Axios focuses on reinforcing its areas of authority:
- “Readers may see some of the breaking news coverage we publish, but we also have amazingly, deep coverage on narrow topics like space, sports betting, electric vehicles, China, privacy, immigration, to name a few. All of these are forward-looking areas that will only be more important to the country as time goes on.”
- “And that depth can come into play down the road. As an example, Axios had more authority than you’d think when the war in Ukraine started because we had covered Volodymyr Zelensky, including this amazing interview we did with him for Axios on HBO in 2021. Using that expertise furthers both pure journalistic and SEO goals.”
- “I’ve loved working on our explainers, which really help us step back and give regular readers a chance to access a storyline with Smart Brevity. Axios Explains Ukraine is a great example of where we are headed with this.”
4. Speed. For breaking news, Axios is fast. Really fast.
- “Being among the first URLs on the web on a big story helps us rank as news develops. We’ll often get beat when the big publishers come knocking but generally staying fast, pointing to our expertise through internal links, and peeling off really great story angles gives us a fighting chance.”
5. Pillar and evergreen content. Axios publishes more than just short articles.
- “We have a set of Deep Dives that cover topics in-depth and from a bunch of different angles. Those stories have potential to be great pillar content and evergreen too with some continued editorial and technical SEO work.”
Breaking Axios SEO news: Axios has just hired their first Director of SEO: Priyanka Vora, formerly Quartz’s Audience Editor. She will help build out Axios’ SEO practice further.
- “I would also keep an eye on the Axios job listings page as the company is in growth mode across a number of areas, both in and around our newsroom.”
Axios’ SEO tool of choice. “We’re a Semrush shop for now,” Kellett said. Though he is personally partial to exporting GSC data to Google Sheets.
Most important SEO KPIs or metrics? Raw referrals matter to Kellett most. Also, the percentage of overall referred traffic from search.
“Though, of course, I will also celebrate anyone in our newsroom who sends me a screenshot of when Axios is in Top Stories carousel,” Kellett said.